THOUGHTS ABOUT COWDOGS

by Tony Rohne

Note: This is a response to an e-mail that Tony got from someone who asked how to go about getting a dog trained, apparently someone with a lot of stock and no experience with dogs.

Where do we start? With 1,000 mother cows and probably 3,500 ewes, it obvious one dog will not be able to do much. Rather than jumping into a lot of formal training, it might be best to step back and think about how you are going break into the dog business.

It is common to first try and buy a trained dog or have a dog trained. I tried it. The problem I ran into was the good ones were not for sale. The one I bought were supposed have some training but I never figured out what it was. It did change my attitude to thinking whatever was going wrong was my fault. If you will take that attitude, you will always try to figure out how to change things so the dog will work better. You are the mammal out there with the power of reasoning so if something. is not working, don’t be bashful about trying it over and over, then trying something else over and over.

Dog work does not come easy. Another thing against buying a trained dog is that this is only one part of the puzzle. You need to be trained first, then the stock, and then the dog. You can switch the last two but you have to be trained first. We have a big job getting your stock into shape so they can be worked any time necessary. You can learn as we go.

My methods are not like sheep trial training methods. I suggest getting a rapport with your dog and the two of you learn what I call “dog talk.” Canned training methods work for the sport of trialing. They concentrate on handling small groups of stock using about the same routine every time. Their type of dog engineering might not fit your needs. As you have seen, working four or five dogs on 4,000 head is not like working one dog on five head.

Three things that I view as differences between the sheep trial and your world are the outrun, down and pushing wide. Someday we will do an “outrun” but that is one of the last stages of training dogs for your type of work. It involves sending a dog to the back side of a bunch but without having the dog trained, you will not like what happens when he gets back there.

We will talk about why NOT to push the dog out later but let’s talk about why you do NOT want to teach your dog to down.

If you are like most people, you will not want to go through a lot of dogs. Getting rid of a cull is not a pleasant experience. Let’s assume you have done your best to get the best prospect. You want to give the dog every chance to make a good hand. Too many people break the spirit of a young dog. Downing is an act of submission to a lot of dogs. It is an all or nothing thing, since that dogs don’t kill stock while lying on a “down.” To others, especially Border Collies, they get to the point where they lay down and freeze every time something looks at them. If you were training the dog in a pen, you would use a “down” to start and end a move. You would need the dog to know to lay down. You need a dog in the pasture, not in the training pen.

Doing this “no down” method involves developing some “dog talking” skills. Your dog has to have experience around stock. He has to kindle his desire to work. You hear about dogs leaving stock and going back to the house. Usually, it is because the desire has not been kindled enough to overcome the trash the handler is throwing. A dog learns nothing in a kennel. Even a young pup can benefit by being allowed around stock.

I start letting dogs go to stock as soon as they can travel. They are usually four months old or so when they turn on. When they do, they are problems. They won’t come, chase stock and pretty well cause a wreck. All good ones do the same thing. Obviously, you will not want to do this on a thousand acres. Let the mutt go with you when you feed.

When I need to put the pup back into the pen, I expect to get a look from him and get “flipped off.” I fuss until the mutt finally lets me walk him down. I used to lose my temper but now I pick the darling up and I love on him. I carry him back to the pen because I know if I put him back on the ground, he will go back to the stock. I hope he will.

By the time the dog is a year old, he can be fairly manageable in the open pasture. In the pasture a “down” that has been forced enough to be successful will turn some off from working stock. I get a bit pushy and have been too rough on dogs insisting they do as they are told. My ego tells me any dog trainer could at least teach a dog to ride in the back of a pickup and lay down when told. You notice I transport my dogs in a dog crate.

I have tried to start dogs that were over two. They have already formed some opinions of what they are supposed to and not supposed to do by then. Many times, older pups don’t think they are supposed to work stock and making them down only reinforces that notion. Couple a dog’s idea he is not doing the right thing with a spirit that has been broken in half, and you will have a dog who will quit at the least provocation. I have done this to several dogs and never had any luck using them.

So what to do now? Once you have tested the mutt in a smaller pen, test him in a larger area. Be prepared to go after him. He will still play hard of hearing but you can get him away from stock two different ways. If you can get between him and the stock, cut him out much like a quarter horse in a cutting contest. Once you are directly between him and the stock, you can walk up to him. The second way, which usually works, is start riding off on the four wheeler. Most pups will notice they are being left and will come along. If you have a lot of problems, keep on practicing catching him in the small pen. You can talk fairly rough to him as long as you don’t jerk him around. Teach the dog to listen to you. Call him by name a lot. Get him to look at you when you call his name so you will know he is paying attention; that will be handy later on. Looking at the handler is a no-no in the trial arena but is a must when you are working several dogs.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine February/March 1998